When we talk about ‘dressing’ a body for a funeral, most people will automatically think only of what clothes they should choose. However, the steps taken by a funeral home to prepare the deceased include many more processes.
When a funeral home receives the body of a deceased person, a procedure is followed. Steps are taken to preserve the body, make a loved one presentable for public or private viewings and to ready the deceased for their funeral.
In this guide, we take you through the process of preparing the body of a loved one from the moment it is received at a funeral home to the point at which the body is cremated or buried. We cover common procedures including disinfection, embalming and dressing plus answer some frequently asked questions about this process.
- What is the prepration process for bodies at funeral homes?
- What is embalming?
- Who does the embalming?
- Do bodies have to be embalmed?
- Embalming vs refrigeration
- What kind of clothing should I choose to dress the body
- Can I place personal effects with the body?
- What if the deceased wore glasses or a prosthetic?
- What happens to the body if there is a viewing?
What is the Preparation Process for Bodies at a Funeral Home?
The proper care, respect and dignity that is afforded to everyone does not end when you die and all funeral homes follow a reception procedure to attend to the needs of a recently deceased loved one with strict standards.
Having first confirmed and recorded the identity of the deceased, care commences when the body is collected from a hospital or private home and continue as they are transferred in a controlled and dignified manner.
The funeral home will then conduct a series of their own tests for any vital signs to prevent premature burial/cremation. This occurs even with the presence of a medical certificate.
When first received at a funeral home, irrespective of the kind of service you have chosen (burial, cremation, natural burial), it is standard procedure for the staff to bathe and disinfect a body. The reasons for doing this are twofold and are part health and safety as well as ceremonial.
Once someone dies, some very rapid changes begin to take place and it is important that this kind of hygienic cleansing ritual is performed for the safety of staff who will take charge of the body during the next phase. Performed with great care and respect, the cleansing of a body is also necessary to preserve the deceased’s dignity.
It is usual that the body is also massaged at this stage to relieve any rigor mortis; this is where the muscles and joints become stiff after death.
After the cleansing stage and depending on the nature of death (for example, accidental or traumatic) and whether the deceased had donated any organs some special restoration work may be required. This is particularly important if the family have requested a viewing with the funeral service.
This stage usually involves a process known as setting the face where the eyes and mouth are closed with the body being laid to sleep.
The next stage of preparation will depend on the type of funeral service you have arranged with the funeral director. If you have chosen a natural (or green) burial then embalming is not usually allowed by the burial ground management (except in exceptional circumstances).
However, if you have no objections to embalming then this may be necessary to preserve the deceased for their funeral and any private or public viewings that may be arranged for mourners at a later stage.
Some funeral homes and/or families may opt not to embalm a body, particularly if the funeral is to take place quickly as may be necessary with certain religions. In which case, the body will placed in refrigeration (usually in readiness for a cremation).
If the body is to be transferred to another funeral home, either in the UK or overseas, then transport arrangements will be made and the body suitably prepared for an onward journey.
What is Embalming?
Practised for many thousands of years, embalming is a method of preserving the human body to temporarily prevent decomposition. The current process of embalming was refined in the 19th century.
Principally, there are two ways to embalm a body, both of which require the replacement of natural fluids in the body with an embalming fluid (formaldehyde, ethanol, phenol, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and water):
- Arterial – this where the blood is drained from the veins and embalming fluid replaced into the arteries.
- Cavity – a small incision is made to drain fluids from the chest and abdomen and these are replaced with embalming fluid.
In addition, some degree of embalming may be given by hypodermic injection as well as some surface treatment to restore damage due to decomposition.
Embalming is necessary when bodies must be transported over long distances or when a funeral service is expected to be delayed for several weeks. Embalming can prevent the decay of the body for a period and allow relatives to hold an open casket
In addition, embalming is also a good way to help prevent health hazards that can occur as part of the natural decaying process.
Who Does the Embalming?
Many funeral directors hold embalming licenses but not all. Embalming is a specialist and technical process for which the provider usually has a professional accreditation with the British Institute of Embalmers (BIE).
You can request your own embalmer if you prefer.
Do Bodies Have to Be Embalmed?
There is no UK law which requires a body to be embalmed.
Certainly, some religions do not allow the body to be embalmed (such as the Jewish faith) and this must be respected and honoured by the funeral director.
If the funeral service is likely to take place swiftly and you do not have any need as a family to hold a public or private viewing than embalming may well not be necessary.
Embalming vs Refrigeration
Refrigeration can help preserve a body for a short period but is not always available and is not a suitable method for preservation if the body is to be moved over a long period.
Some funeral directors can arrange for transport ice but they will advise on the availability of this kind of service and the suitability for preservation.
What Kind of Clothing Should I Choose to Dress the Body?
After the body has been prepared, restored and embalmed (where applicable), you will need to consider the clothing that you would like to arrange for your loved ones’ funeral.
For some, the choice of what clothing to wear will be dictated by their religious beliefs whilst others will have no clear idea of what outfit to choose.
If you are arranging a cremation then there are some guidelines that must be followed which include choosing natural fabrics and avoiding manmade materials such as PVC. You should also avoid any clothing that contains ferrous metals.
Other than this, you are at liberty to choose any outfit you wish and some people can make some unusual requests. The funeral director will advise if they are unable to accommodate these.
Some families may choose a more traditional outfit such as a suit for a man or a formal dress for a lady. These can be bought new or chosen from the deceased’s wardrobe, as you see fit. According to British funeral etiquette, it is unlucky to wear new clothing (particularly shoes) at a funeral and this includes the clothes of the deceased.
It is important to remember that death itself, and any prolonged illness prior to death, can change the size of a person’s body.
You should also remember that shoes are able to be selected for the deceased. For some people, the choice of shoe for this occasion is very important and many opt for a pair with good soles as these will be seen during the viewing.
It is also recommended that you select some underwear for your loved one. Though these items are not seen at a viewing, it can be a comfort to some and allows the staff who work at the funeral home to give the deceased the same dignity in death that they deserved in life.
A last word on the subject of choosing clothes for the deceased and that is to consider the funeral home may cut the clothing in order to ensure the best fit and give the best appearance. If you specifically do not wish the garments you choose to be cut then you must tell the funeral director when you hand the clothes over. If this is important to you then it is best if you select items of clothing that are more loose-fitting to aid in dressing the deceased.
Can I Place Personal Effects (Mementos, Jewellery Etc.) with the Body?
You are able to place some mementoes or personal items inside the coffin for viewings and for burial but this is restricted in the case of cremations.
Sometimes the deceased may have left instructions for items to be buried with them such as wedding rings or special personal effects. Always ask the funeral director in advance to ensure that this is accommodated.
Likewise, it is also possible for you to place some objects in the coffin beside the body that can later be removed following the viewings and prior to committal.
What If the Deceased Wore Glasses or a Prosthetic?
If you are arranging a traditional burial, items such as glasses or prosthetics can be left on the body.
However, cremation laws prohibit some items from being allowed into the cremator with the coffin; this includes glasses and any easily removable prosthetics.
Natural burials do not normally have bans on prosthetics but most do insist that non-biodegradable items are removed from the body before interment.
Some other methods of funeral may also prohibit certain items from being included on the body so it is always best to check this with the funeral director.
What Happens to the Body If There Is a Viewing?
The final stage of preparation is to make the body ready for any private or public viewings. During this part of the process, the hair is attended to and any cosmetics applied.
The style of this is done in accordance with your wishes and many funeral directors will ask for a recent photograph of the deceased where they look healthy and well.
In the case of violent or traumatic death then all efforts will be made to reconstruct the body in order to allow viewings to take place but sometimes this is simply not possible. The funeral director will advise you if this is the case.
If there are no viewings intended to accompany the funeral service then this step may well be skipped but most funeral homes will at least make the deceased look presentable in a natural way.
This process is then followed by casketing the body. This involves the careful placement of the deceased into their coffin, casket or shroud in readiness for the funeral service.